In honor of March Madness, we’re detailing the most impactful college games of all time. Only one team truly encapsulates every element of an underdog story; the 1983 NC State Wolfpack. Tap into the nostalgia with all-new pieces from our “Survive and Advance” collection, which is available now. Shop here. 

We were originally going to do this on Friday ahead of the Final Four. Then DJ Burns Jr. and both of the men’s and women’s squads at NC State completely captivated the nation. For the first time since 1983, the Wolfpack are back in the Final Four. So we adjusted to honor history, as we’ve always done. 

It’s been 41 years since the “Cardiac Pack” captured the program’s first-ever national championship in New Mexico. And while decades have passed, Raleigh still remains encapsulated by the greatness of Sidney Lowe, Thurl Bailey, Dereck Whittenburg and the late Jim Valvano. 

Society loves underdogs. The sporting landscape loves them even more. In March of 1983, the NC State Wolfpack became America’s team. Cinderella’s? Yes. Overlooked? Heavily. Legendary? History says yes. 

Tumultuous doesn’t even begin to describe the journey that the 1982-83 team embarked upon. After lighting up Virginia for 27 first-half points in NC State’s first ACC regular season game, senior guard Dereck Whittenburg went down with a broken right foot. While they danced through the preseason with seven wins in nine games, a potential season-ending injury to their All-ACC guard left the Wolfpack searching for answers as they dropped their next three of four. Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins and UNC trounced them on the road by 18. Then Wake Forest copy and pasted with their own assertive 18-point win. 

In the meantime, All-American Thurl Bailey and senior guard Sidney Lowe kept the hopes of Raleigh afloat. The 6-11 forward dominated the ACC with 16.7 points and 7.7 boards a game while Lowe would orchestrate the offense with 11.3 points and 7.5 dimes per. 

Eventually, the Pack found their rhythm again. But the landscape was daunting. Valvano had preached the promised land of Albequrque over and over. Starting the season 7-1 and finding yourself with a 9-7 record heading into February didn’t exactly reflect a championship destiny. But then again, no one in the country had the legendary Jim Valvano leading the way. 

“Every single day, in every walk of life, ordinary people do extraordinary things. Ordinary people accomplish extraordinary things,” Jim Valvano famously said, quoting Olympian Pole Vaulter Bob Richards. 

The historical impact of Jim Valvano is straight up illustrious, permeating from his tenure at NC State to the annual Jimmy V Week that’s taken place posthumously every year since 1993. More than a coach, more than a mentor, Valvano was a walking inspiration to everyone from elementary school teachers to fellow coaches and rival teams. And while rankings, local news outlets and the national media had written off NC State’s championship hopes, Valvano refused to waver. 

You know those coaches that you’d run through a wall for? Yeah, that’s Valvano in a nutshell. Even after trotting out to a subpar record, the Wolfpack still believed. Valvano made it so; teaching, showing and envisioning that belief. 

That belief brought forth a rejuvenated second half of the season where the Wolfpack carved eight wins out of their next 10 games. That belief found its way into the return of Whittenburg, who suited up with the team weeks ahead of his initial recovery schedule.

With Lowe and Whittenburg bolstering a healthy backcourt – that dates back to their days at DeMatha Catholic – Bailey dominating the paint and sophomore Lorenzo Charles igniting runs with an endless array of hustle plays, NC State fully bought into Valvano’s vision. And those Demon Deacons that embarrassed them on the road? Yeah, they received a 41-point whooping in the final game of the season. 

An 8-6 record in the ACC failed to truly reflect the potential of the Pack. The conference tournament would be their last saving grace at the big dance. And in their way stood giants. Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins at UNC. Ralph Sampson and Othell Wilson at Virginia. Mark Price and John Salley at Georgia Tech. Delaney Rudd and Danny Young at Wake Forest. An underdog story was brewing while the rest of the nation pegged future lottery picks to lead their teams to New Mexico. 

After defeating Wake Forest, North Carolina and Virginia, NC State had secured their first ACC Tournament Championship since the 1974 season. Sampson saw it, MJ saw it, Valvano knew it; NC State could go all the way. And now America was waking up to that possibility as well.

The Wolfpack received the six seed in the West region where they took No. 11 Pepperdine to double-overtime. Then came Thurl Bailey’s game-winner against No. 3 UNLV, capping off a double-digit comeback in the second half. They cruised to a 19-point dub over No. 10 Utah in the Sweet Sixteen before reaching the Elite Eight against Sampson and the Cavaliers. Two clutch free throws from Lorenzo Charles gave the Wolfpack their second upset of the tournament. Then, a narrow seven point win over No. 4 Georgia. The Wolfpack had reached the land that Valvano had promised. 

And there stood Clyde Drexler, Hakeem Olajuwon and a stacked Houston squad. No. 1 vs. No. 6 in the championship. Everyone and their momma was picking Houston. And then, the unthinkable happened. 

You’ve probably seen it tens of times. The airball by Whittenburg, the putback from Lorenzo Charles, Jimmy V racing and spinning around the court frantically trying to find someone to hug. 

44 seconds left, tied at 52 a-piece. The ball whipped back and forth as the Wolfpack looked to expose the slightest gap in Houston’s towering defense. As the play fell apart, Whittenburg cast up a three from Caitlin Clark’s range with four ticks left. Not enough juice. The ball sailed inches in front of the rim where Lorenzo Charles was tracking its trajectory. As Hakeem turned and watched his championship hopes rise, Charles met the ball just short of the rim and flushed it back through the rim as time expired. 

Defeating the number one team in the country is underdog material, but NC State’s journey is so much grander than their final game. Every moment where they found their backs against the wall, they’d respond. When the season seemed to slip away, Valvano refused to let go. When their best player went down, the bench filled in the gaps. When an ACC Championship was the only hope for a spot in March Madness, they won the whole damn thing. Survive and advance. Survive and advance. The Wolfpack survived all season long. Advancing just came with the territory. And they did it, again and again until a net was draped around Valvano’s neck.

Photos via Getty Images.


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